Mtskheta-Mtianeti is the second most mountainous region in Georgia, only behind Racha-Lechkhumi and Kvemo Svaneti. Most of the peaks range between 3500-5000 meters (11,500-16,400 feet). The mountains in Mtskheta-Mtianeti are characterized by steep ridges, narrow valleys, and little vegetation due to the rain-shadow effect. This gives the mountains a bleak and barren feel.
The Aragvi River, which starts near Gudauri, runs through the middle of the region before it merges with the Mtkvari River in Mtskheta. One of Georgia’s largest reservoirs--Ananuri, is located along the Aragvi River.
A small portion of the central Kartli Plain lies in the region’s south, roughly between the villages of Mukhrani and Kotoraantkari, including Saguramo and Natakhtari.
Mtskheta-Mtianeti’s history is centered around the city of Mtskheta, which is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. Archeological evidence states that a settlement existed in Mtskheta since the 6th Century BCE. As the legend goes, Mtskhetos, the legendary founder of Mtskheta and son of Kartlos, was told to “...build a city between the Mtkvari and Aragvi Rivers and name it after yourself, Mtskheta.” The city is located at the confluence of the Mtkvari and Aragvi Rivers, with the Trialeti Range to the city’s south and the Saguramo Range to the city’s north and east. As such, Mtskheta is surrounded by natural fortifications.
Presently, the region is seeing a rebound thanks to both the regional governments and central government’s development policies, which have been focusing on tourism as a means of economic development. Many town in Mtskheta-Mtianeti, predominantly Mtskheta, Gudauri, and Stepantsminda, have seen their economies grow thanks to tourism.
Between the 3rd Century BCE to the 6th Century CE, Mtskheta was the capital of the Kartli Kingdom. On the right bank of the Mtkvari River, opposite of Mtskheta, is the ruins of Armaztsikhe, which was the royal residency during this time period. The kingdom which was centered in Mtskheta was described by the Greek geographer Strabo as controlling trade from Colchis, Armenia, and Albania (today those regions correspond with west Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan). As such, Mtskheta was said to have six languages--Aramaic, Greek, Armenian, Persian, Georgian, and Khazar (a now extinct Turkic language).
In 75 CE Mtskheta became a part of the Roman Empire. During this time, a bridge was constructed over the Mtkvari River, its ruins are still visible. During this time, the Georgians were still believers of the old religion, worshipers of the Sun, Moon, and five stars. Christianity was introduced to Mtskheta, and the Georgians, by St. Nino--a cousin of St. George of Cappadocia--and was officially adopted as the state religion in 319 CE.
The city became an important religious and cultural center after the completion of Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, which contains the mantle of Jesus Christ. This allowed the city to become a major pilgrimage site for early Christians and later for Orthodox Christians.
After the founding of Tbilisi in 479 CE by King Vakhtang Gorgasali, Mtskheta began to decline in its importance as an important political and economic hub for the region. As Tbilisi grew in size and importance, Mtskheta shrunk and had to increasingly become an agricultural town under the influence of Tbilisi. Finally, between 736-738 CE Marwan ibn Muhammad, who would later become the last Umayyad caliph, invaded Georgia and destroyed Mtskheta.
The history of Mtskheta during the Middle Ages to the present day now lies predominantly with the Georgian Orthodox Church. The town has continued to survive thanks to its cathedral, which is the Georgian Orthodox Church’s most sacred site.
Svetitskhoveli Cathedral is the holiest site for Orthodox Georgians, and one of Georgia's most well-known locations. The existing building is over 1000 years old and has been the anchor for Mtskheta’s economic, historic, and cultural identity as that it acts as Georgia’s spiritual center. Not only is Svetitskhoveli of religious importance for Georgia, but also of historical and cultural importance since it is the primary architectural model for most other Georgian churches.
Construction of the cathedral began in the 11th Century. During this period, Georgia had finished its battles for national unity and Georgia began to enter a period of architectural, philosophical, political, and economic prosperity. Svetitskhoveli is just one of many of Georgia’s most famous cathedrals to be built, with others being Alaverdi, Bagrati, Samtavro, and Nikortsminda Cathedrals all have a similar architectural form. Unlike these other cathedrals, however, Svetitskhoveli is notable for its stepped-front, which is composed of three separate levels (including the main cathedral itself).
The importance of Svetitskhoveli is inseparable from Georgian history, particularly its ancient history. The first church here was built by King Mirian during the 430s C.E. The initial structure was a wooden church. During the 5th Century, King Vakhtang Grogasali had given the church independence in Georgia (he separated the leadership of the Georgian Orthodox Church from the monarchy). By this time, Mtskheta had become the primary Christian center for the entire Caucasus, and therefore, the small wooden church would no longer suffice. A second church, this time made of stone, was constructed in a typical basilica form, similar to the churches of Bolnisi, Khashmi, and Tsilkani.
During the 11th Century, Georgian architect Uta Arsukisdze had made major modifications to the architectural form of the Georgian church, introducing the barrel-dome over a cruciform church along with using barrel-vaults for the interior ceilings. These two changes drastically changed the look of Georgian churches, bringing them more in line with the churches that were being constructed across Europe and during this time. The construction of the current cathedral began under King Bagrat III, who ruled Georgia between 1001-1014 C.E. Most of the building, however, was finished during Kings Giorgi I and Bagrat IV’s periods. The church was completed in 1029 C.E. Svetitskhoveli Cathedral became the central component and location of Mtskheta’s architectural ensemble (Samtavro Monastery, Jvari Monastery and the fortress complex that surrounds the cathedral).
The central dome of Svetitskhoveli Cathedral was destroyed in an earthquake in 1283 C.E. and was destroyed again during the invasion of Tamerlane during the 14th Century. Reconstruction of the cathedral began in the 15th Century, with the two lower levels on the west facade of the cathedral being added along with the reconstruction of the cathedral’s dome.
Located inside the cathedral are numerous items of historical and cultural importance. Upon entering the cathedral from the main doorway is a small stone baptismal font. Although unimposing, this baptismal font was the first such font in Georgia and is the place where King Mirian, the Georgian king who converted Georgia to Christianity, was baptized. Along the southern wall is a small minarature church, which was built between the 14-15th Centuries. This small church is a replica of the basilica located on Golgotha Hill--the place where Jesus Christ was crucified--by the order of Byzantine Emperor Constantine IV to assist pilgrims who couldn’t reach Jerusalem, calling Mtskheta “the second Jerusalem.” The most notable relic of Svetitskhoveli Cathedral is the mantle of Christ, which is located along a column in the center of the church.
Interred in Svetitskhoveli Cathedral are numerous members of Georgian kings, such as Vakhtang Gorgasali, King Erekle II,and King Giorgi XII of Kartli-Kakheti.
The first structures in Samtavro Monastery were constructed in the first half of the 11th Century during the same time as Svetitskhoveli.The history of the nunnery in its modern form began in 1820 when ten nuns decided to create a monastery under St. Nino’s name on 27 January--Ninoba (the celebration of St. Nino), 1828.
Like Svetitskhoveli, the primary church takes a cruciform plan with a large barrel dome over the central crossing. The dome of the initial church was destroyed in the 1283 earthquake and was rebuilt during the 17th Century and again in the 19th Century. The graves of King Mirian--the first Christian king of Georgia--and his queen Nana are located in the southwest corner of the main church. The belfry of Samtavro was constructed between the 15-16th Centuries and rises to around 20 meters in height.
Mtskheta Jvari Monastery is one of the oldest churches in Georgia. The building was built on the location of a holy relic--a wooden cross built by St. Nino during her conversion of the Georgian peoples--which quickly became a pilgrimage site. The present church was built by King Guram Eristavi of Kartli, who decided that a new church was necessary to house the relic. Construction of the church began in the in 585 C.E. and was completed in 604 C.E.
The church is the first Georgian church with decorated facades, a cross structure, and has a central dome. The building would become the standard model for Georgian churches until the changes made by Atu Arsukisdze. The church would hold great importance for Mtskheta due to its strategic location--high on a mountain overlooking the city, the Aragvi valley to the north, and the Mtkvari valleys to the west and south. This gave the monastery the role of acting as the city’s primary defence apparatus since it offered views of each entrance to the city. What’s more, the monastery had escape tunnels leading to the Mtkvari River below.
Ananuri is a fortress-church complex located along the road to Kazbegi (ს-3) on the shores of the Zhinvali Reservoir. The fortress was built during the Georgian feudal era as a residence for the Eristavi family. In 1743, King Teimuraz II of Kakheti abolished the Eristavi family’s rule over the fortress and took direct control himself. The fortress played an important role in the implementation of trade with Russia after Georgia’s incorporation with the Russian Empire due to the fortress’s location on the road from Tbilisi to Russia, known as the Georgian Military Highway (now the ს-3). The church in the citadel dates back to the 16th Century with the belfry having been constructed in the 17th Century.
The village of Stepantsminda is the last settlement in Georgia along the ს-3 before entering Russia. The village is one of Georgia’s few “high mountain villages” and one of its most prosperous. The village came into being during the 12th Century under the reign of Tamar Mepe. During the 1290s the area was a part of a Mongold feudal kingdom called the “Golden Horde.” The area was incorporated into the Georgian state during the reign of Davit VIII in 1301. The most famous site, and sit of greatest historical importance, in Stepantsminda is Stepantsminda Sameba (Trinity) Church (also known as Gergeti Church) which was built in the first half of the 14th Century.
The primary road to Gergeti Church, which sits on a small mountain top between Mt Kazbeg and the village of Stepantsminda, has been recently paved. The view from Gergeti of both the village below and the mountain are spectacular. In Kazbegi itself there are numerous small cafes and restaurants.
Gudauri is a series of resorts located on the southern slopes of the Greater Caucasus Mountains. The area is known as being Georgia’s primary winter sports destinations since the area has numerous ski resorts, hotels and lodges, and spectacular views of the mountains. Gudauri is at a height of around 2,196 meters/ 7,200 feet above sea level/ The skiing season generally lasts from December to April and the area has numerous lifts, ranging from traditional skil lifts to a gondola. There is also a gondola that runs from Gudauri to the Kobi Ski Resort which is 17 kilometers north of Gudauri.
Just north of Gudauri, along the ს-3 there is a Soviet-era monument that offers breathtaking views of the Aragvi River gorge below.
The village of Dusheti is located in west-central Mtskheta-Mtianeti. The village was founded in 1215 when natural water springs were found in the area, however, archeological evidence has found that humans have been inhabiting the area since the Neolithic era. The village is best known for its woodwork architecture, which is unique to Dusheti. The buildings here have ornate lattice work around balconies. The village center, including its central square, park, and numerous streets, are being completely renovated. The village is also close to Bazaleti Lake, which has boats that can be rented, a small beach, and numerous cafes.
Shatili village is located in the rugged and isolated Khevi region of Mtskheta-Mtianeti on the border with Chechnya. The village is complete with ancient stone towers and tightly constructed houses. Khevsureti is similar to Tusheti in that it is almost untouched since humans built their first, and seemingly only, permanent settlements in the region. The only road which goes to this region starts in Zhinvali.
Photo by Shermazana Photography.
Marshrutkas from Tbilisi to Mtskheta are readily available and leave frequently. Marshrutkas to Stepantsminda frequently stop in Gudauri, Pasanuri, and Ananuri, however, it is possible to find a marshrutka with its final destination of Gudauri and Pasanuri from Tbilisi. Additionally, marshrutkas going to Vladikavkaz, Russia, will take the ს-3.
The primary way to get to Jvari Monastery is by a taxi from Mtskheta. These taxis are frequently parked near Svetitskhoveli, just outside the parking lot located directly east. Similarly, most people reach Gergeti Monastery by taxi from Stepandsminda, although hiking up the mountain is also an option.
Mtskheta-Mtianeti is served by two primary roads--the ს-1/E-60, which runs from Tbilisi through Mtskheta and then on westward to Poti. The ს-3 runs from Mtskheta to the border with Russia, where it then turns into the E-117. This is the only road link to Russia, which is in the village of Stepantsminda. The ski town of Gudauri is on this road along with the picturesque Ananuri Fortress and Dusheti village.
5: Stepantsminda/ Kazbegi
6: Shatili Village